Book review collection for May 8, 2014


NON-FICTION REVIEWS:

“The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan 2001-2014” by Carlotta Gall; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (329 pages, $28)

“No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban and the War Through Afghan Eyes” by Anand Gopal; Metropolitan (304 pages, $27)

A pair of new books on the war in Afghanistan — “The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan 2001-2014” by Carlotta Gall and “No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban and the War Through Afghan Eyes” by Anand Gopal — both by journalists who spent years in the Afghan theater, provide a window not only into what went wrong but why.

A highly respected New York Times correspondent, Gall spent a dozen years covering the war in Afghanistan and, in tandem, the tumultuous events in neighboring Pakistan. In this important work, she makes a compelling case that Pakistan — an ostensible ally of the United States — was a driving force of the Afghan conflict, with its powerful intelligence service as a fateful instrument. (The book’s title comes from a quote from the late Richard Holbrooke, the American statesman who was an architect of peace in the Balkans but was confounded by the Afghan war.)

Recognizing, perhaps, that reticence can be a strength, Gall here lets the facts she lays out for us speak eloquently for themselves.

With a plethora of policy-oriented works on Afghanistan having appeared in recent years, Anand Gopal wisely chooses to tell the war’s story from the personal perspective of three characters: a Taliban commander, a U.S.-allied Afghan official, and an Afghan housewife who claws her way out of a suffocating village existence and eventually becomes a lawmaker. While a younger and less experienced correspondent than Gall, Gopal nonetheless displays a keen understanding of the levers of power in Afghan society and their sometimes devastating effect on individuals trying to make their way in the world.

Gopal’s book, like Gall’s, contributes to our understanding of a conflict that seemed at its outset to hold such moral clarity but devolved into what Gopal calls “the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy” of violence becoming its own end. Much to their credit, neither writer loses sight of the lives caught up in war’s machinery.

“The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas” by Anand Giridharadas; Norton (336 pages, $27.95)

In the chaos following 9/11, with America trying to unravel the devastating attacks while wondering what might be coming next, Mark Stroman walked into three Dallas gas stations and shot three men he supposed to be Arabs at near point-blank range.

Two died within moments. The third, a former Bangladesh air force officer who immigrated to America to pursue a technology career, managed to survive, though he would undergo repeated surgeries to his mangled face, ultimately losing most vision in one eye.

New York Timescolumnist Anand Giridharadas meticulously re-creates the crimes and all that would happen to these two men over the next decade, a period of transformation for the self-styled “Arab Slayer” as he awaited his fate on Texas’ Death Row, and for young immigrant Rais Bhuiyan, who finds in his Muslim faith the power to forgive.

“The True American”is a riveting tale, dense with detail, from Giridharadas’ unflinching descriptions of the struggling neighborhoods on the eastern edge of Dallas, to Stroman’s troubled and brutal childhood, to the ebullient optimism of these new Americans determined to create better lives.

“Russian Roulette: How British Spies Thwarted Lenin’s Plot for Global Revolution” by Giles Milton; Bloomsbury Press, NY (400 pages, $28)

If you want some wonderful spy stories, and a lesson in 20th century revolution, try “Russian Roulette” by Giles Milton.

Just under a century ago, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov — better known today as Lenin — returned to Russia and swept away the old Czarist regime. His first speech to his followers was at a train station on April 16, 1917, and was monitored by three British spies.

Only one of the latter took him seriously.

The British government soon would take Lenin, Leon Trotsky and the other revolutionaries very seriously when they overthrew the regime, instituted communism and attempted to spread it worldwide.

“Russian Roulette” is a very readable book told through research, records, the spies’ own accounts and archives. It is an entertaining one-stop-shop book that introduces readers to the turbulent years of the Russian Revolution and the new “great game” of intelligence run by the British and the Soviets.

Who were these spies? The author Somerset Maugham was one. Another was Sidney Reilly, portrayed by the actor Sam Neill in the 1983 TV series “Reilly: Ace of Spies.” The leaders of the new Soviet regime thought the third, journalist Arthur Ransome, was on their side, but he reported back directly to British Intelligence. There were others as well who had contacts and lovers among the Russian revolutionaries. Some of the agents would die. So would their friends.

FICTION REVIEWS:

“The Snow Queen” by Michael Cunningham; Farrar, Straus and Giroux (258 pages, $26)

While wandering through Central Park after getting dumped by his latest romantic fixation, Barrett Meeks, the aimless 38-year-old gay protagonist of Michael Cunningham’s new novel, “The Snow Queen,” has what seems to be, even to his proudly secular mind, a mystical experience: “There it was. A pale aqua light, translucent, a swatch of veil, star-high, no, lower than the stars, but high, higher than a spaceship hovering about the treetops.”

Because this scene is set in fall 2004, just before the election that will give George W. Bush a second presidential term, Barrett doesn’t rip out his smartphone and search Twitter for drone sightings. He does check the evening news when he gets home to the Brooklyn apartment he shares with his older brother, Tyler, and Tyler’s seriously ill girlfriend, Beth. But his Twilight Zone encounter hasn’t hit the news cycle.

What exactly happened to Barrett? “The sky regarded him, noted him, closed its eye again, and returned to what were, as Barrett can only imagine, more revelatory, incandescent, galaxy-wheeling dreams.” His fear is that the incident was “nothing, a blip, an accidental glimpse behind a celestial curtain, just one of those things.” But even if this is some kind of divine text message, how will Barrett, an underemployed Yale grad who spends most of his free time pondering either his rotten luck with men or his inability to stay interested in an occupation longer than a few months, ever unlock its meaning?

This is an odd work, engaging in parts and shot through with stunning lyricism, yet testing in the problematic personalities it brings together. The resolution Cunningham bestows is not unlike that otherworldly light in Central Park — subject to interpretation and dependent to an unusual degree on a character’s capacity to hold on to hope.

“Delicious!” by Ruth Reichl; Random House (383 pages, $27)

“You should have used fresh ginger!” writes Ruth Reichl in kicking off her debut novel, “Delicious!”

As opening lines go, “Call me Ishmael” it ain’t. But if anyone is going to kick off a novel with a knob of ginger, who better than Reichl? After all, she has built her career around food, as a restaurant critic for the Times, both Los Angeles and New York; as the final editor-in-chief of the late and much lamented Gourmet magazine; and as a memoirist whose biographical works were as much about food as they were about herself.

This first novel, then, reveals Reichl is following the sage advice often given to writers: Work from what you know. While a plot thick with food and culinary references will attract many foodies who have made up her reader base in the past, it can lead one to wonder how much of this book is fiction, fact or something in between.

Reichl’s choice of central character blurs the line further. Billie Breslin may dress drab and have forgettable hair, a vivid contrast to Reichl’s famously luxuriant locks, but she is just as bright-eyed and whip-smart as her creator, with a flair for cooking and a love of writing. She goes to work at a beloved food magazine, the “Delicious!” of the title — only to see the magazine killed off.

Billie is kept on to handle reader complaints and stumbles across a mystery involving World War II-era letters from a young girl in Ohio to none other than the late, great James Beard, who is often called the dean of American cooking.

Credit Reichl for building empathy for her heroine along with the suspense in “Delicious!” I found myself rooting for Billie to crack the mystery facing her, enjoying all the while the clues and red herrings strewn in her way.

“Delicious!” is an enjoyable read overall. I just had to take a deep breath, relax and remember this book is supposed to be fun, albeit one where food facts are sprinkled like fleur de sel across a just-sliced, vine-ripened tomato.

“A Kind of Dream” by Kelly Cherry; University of Wisconsin Press (174 pages, $27)

“Writing fiction,” said Eudora Welty, “has developed in me an abiding respect for the unknown in a human lifetime and a sense of where to look for the threads, how to follow, how to connect, find in the thick of the tangle what clear line persists.”

Kelly Cherry, the Eudora Welty Professor Emerita at the University of Wisconsin—Madison, embarks on such a search for connections in her new cycle of stories, “A Kind of Dream.”

The collection traces the links between five generations in a family of artists. These richly imagined, sympathetic characters face trials common and devastating: failing marriages, lost children, terminal illnesses.

Cherry, a recent Poet Laureate of Virginia, embellishes her prose with evocative images and instances of heartbreaking candor. As in dreams, the threads of these narratives tend to remain tangled — or lead the way to unconvincing endings.

The stories coalesce in the book’s final third around Nina, a prolific writer dying of pancreatic cancer. As an academic and an introvert, she ponders the overlap between the challenges artists face and more universal questions of meaning and mortality.

Nina’s concerns are surely shared by the author. At 73, Cherry retired from teaching 15 years ago but continues to publish poetry and short fiction. Her absolute care with syntax and adoration for her characters becomes most apparent in the Nina stories, especially “Faith, Hope, and Clarity.” In the epilogue, she all but abandons realism and dives deep into Nina’s stream of consciousness, a risky choice that pays off, at last, on the final page.

“Catnapped!” by Elaine Viets; Obsidian (276 pages, $24.95)

Elaine Viets’ “Dead-End Job” series has come a long ways since heroine Helen Hawthorne began taking low-paying, off-the-grid jobs as a way to avoid paying alimony to a cheating, gadabout husband. Those “dead-end” jobs are still a part of Helen’s life, because she now does undercover work for the private detective agency she owns with her new husband, Phil Sagemont.

What hasn’t changed is the effective humor, the often poignant look at those who toil at low-paying jobs and the glimpses into unusual worlds.

That approach is in full force in Viets’ energetic 13th novel in this series. “Catnapped!” takes Helen and Phil into the world of high-end cat shows, where the claws being bared and the catfights don’t belong to the felines.

“Catnapped!” starts out as what should be a simple job — retrieve the expensive Chartreux show kitten owned by Fort Lauderdale socialite Trish Barrymore. The kitten, January’s Jubilee Justine, has been spending the weekend with Trish’s soon-to-be ex-husband, Mort, who also dotes on the cat. When the detectives arrive at Mort’s estate, they find the financial adviser dead and the kitten missing. Trish is the main suspect, even when a ransom call comes in demanding $500,000 for the “cat-napped” kitten. To learn about the world of show cats and investigate likely suspects, Helen takes a job as a cat groomer.

“Catnapped!” moves at a brisk pace as Helen, a cat lover herself, learns the difference between pet owners and those who pamper their star felines to the extreme. An intriguing subplot in which Helen’s longtime landlady may be forced to sell her apartment building adds an extra boost to Viets’ witty story.

The fur flies — in a good way — in the humorous “Catnapped!”

 

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